The enduring mystery of Tom Mboya killer

Tom Mboya (centre). He was charismatic and had great organisational skills, and quickly established himself as the dominant African nationalist. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Njenga confided to the warder that on July 5, the day he pulled the trigger on the Cabinet minister, he and two other people had trailed Mboya from morning.
  • The killers packed their vehicle at an angle where they could have shot the minister but hesitated on finding the parking ground crowded by a group of tourists.
  • Four days later, Njenga was picked by police from his office a few steps across the road from where he shot Mboya.

Working on a story of Tom Mboya’s 1969 assassination at a previous anniversary, two things struck me as strange. One, the story of the man who fired the killer shot — Nahashon Isaac Njenga — and two, the conduct of his trial at the High Court.

One of the people I talked to was Kirungumi wa Njuki, the warder at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, who was Njenga’s last companion and who escorted him to the gallows.

When I visited him in Nyeri County some years back, the old man told me that a few days before Mboya’s killer was hanged early morning on November 8, 1969, the murderer confessed to having fired the killer shot, but was deeply angered at having been abandoned by his accomplices.


Njenga confided to the warder that on July 5, the day he pulled the trigger on the Cabinet minister, he and two other people had trailed Mboya from morning when he left his home at Convent Drive in the city’s Lavington estate, chauffeur-driven in his official vehicle, a Mercedes Benz saloon registration KME 627.

They trailed him past James Gichuru Road, down Gitanga Road, Argwings Kodhek, to Valley Road where he had breakfast at the Panafric Hotel.

The killers packed their vehicle at an angle where they could have shot the minister but hesitated on finding the parking ground crowded by a group of tourists who’d come for breakfast en route to Nairobi National Park. They bade their time also, because they knew — most likely from eavesdropping on the minister’s telephone — that from Panafric Hotel he’d be headed to his office at the Treasury building in the city centre and later to a chemist on Moi Avenue.

Sure enough, at about 9.30am, Mboya was at his office. The killers waited.


Slightly past one o’clock, the minister appeared at the underground parking in the company of his private secretary, Otieno Nundu, who he waved bye together with his driver and drove himself away. His killers stayed on the trail. Mboya pulled up and parked outside a chemist shop on Moi Avenue (today it is a clothes shop) next to the Union Towers building.

Inside the chemist, he had a little chat with the owner and family friend, Mrs Mohini Sehmi, and bought a lotion for dry skin.

As the shop owner saw him off a few minutes later, two shots rang out. One caught him in the main vein and he fell back. Sehmi screamed “Tom, Tom, what has happened?” as she rushed to help him. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the Nairobi Hospital.

Why not ask the ‘big man’?

Four days later, Njenga was picked by police from his office a few steps across the road from where he shot Mboya. He looked surprised when he was told the arrest was in connection with the Mboya murder.

Then he asked police Superintendent Sokhi Singh: “Why arrest me? Why not ask the big man?”


Evidence would later be adduced in court that Njenga had been so casual after shooting Mboya that he dropped the briefcase with the killer weapon at his rented house in Ofafa Jericho Estate and came back to town where he bought his friends drinks and danced the whole night. Apparently, whoever he was working with had assured him protection.

Panicky as he walked out in the company of the police, he whispered instructions to the receptionist in vernacular to rush home and ask his wife to throw away “the briefcase”. To buy time, he lied to the police that he lived at Muchatha village in Kiambu — which is actually his ancestral home. But just past Gigiri on Limuru Road, the arresting officers were radioed that they had been misled and that the place to go to was the suspect’s house in the city.

The car turned back, fast. Once in Njenga’s house, they demanded that he give them a briefcase they seemed to know well. On opening it, they found a Smith and Wesson. 38 revolver and seven live bullets. Ballistic tests showed it was the weapon that fired two bullets which killed Mboya, and which were the same as the seven found with the gun. In those days, that particular type of weapon was only officially available to police officers on VIP protection duties.

Asked how he came to acquire the weapon, Njenga said he had bought it from a friend he didn’t disclose. Later, he changed the story to say the friend had given him the briefcase to keep for him and didn’t know it had a gun inside.


In the subsequent murder trial, Njenga was represented by lawyer Samuel Waruhiu, who I interviewed later. The lawyer told me that when he took brief to represent the accused, Attorney-General Charles Njonjo summoned him to his office and explicitly warned him that the government wouldn’t take kindly to any attempt to bring in “politics” to the murder trial.


“Murders happen every day. There is no cause to believe this is a different one so we expect no sideshows from the defence,” Njonjo warned. The same warning would come from the trial judge, Justice Alfred Simpson, who remarked at commencement of the case that he would treat it like any other murder trial regardless of the status of the victim.

Assistant Commissioner of Police John Bell led the prosecution. His first mission was to table the ballistic report. Curiously, the trial judge brushed aside the question of how the accused came to be in possession of the killer weapon.

The prosecution then moved to prove Njenga was the man who pulled the trigger. Lawyer Warunhiu told me of the many witnesses brought, three were most curious. The first was one James Nginyo Ngugi who worked and lived in Kiambu. At the time Mboya was shot dead, the witness happened to be passing by and ran for dear life at the sound of gunfire.

He headed straight home in Githunguri. Two days later, police went to his home and told him he was seen at the scene of crime and must be a State witness.

Lawyer Waruhiu told me he found that intriguing because, in the absence of surveillance cameras those days, some undercover police must have been at the scene to track would-be witnesses to a murder they knew was about to happen!


The next curious State witness, the lawyer told me, was a nurse who said that minutes before Mboya was shot dead, Njenga, the accused, had confided in her at Princess Hotel that he had a gun and three bullets and was headed to some place where he would shoot dead Mboya.

“He shall never stand in this town again,” the accused allegedly told her. It turned out she couldn’t correctly State where Princess Hotel was, and that previously she had been tried for perjury.

But the most curious of all witnesses, lawyer Waruhiu told me, was one Gisela Eleone Hackbath, a teacher at Kenya High School.

She told the court she happened to be window-shopping outside a clothes shop next to the chemist where Mboya was shot. She gave graphic details of Njenga, the gun and briefcase he was carrying, how he fired the gun, and how he briskly walked away from the scene of crime. It amazed the defence lawyer that one can see a man firing in the street and just stand there to watch his every movement when everybody else is scampering for cover. On his own investigations, the lawyer told me, he came to learn the woman was a police reservist.


The case was heard and determined in record time. So was the appeal against the sentence. The execution, too, came within a matter of days, ahead of some condemned prisoners tried earlier.


Such was the speed with which Njenga was hanged that rumours sprang that he never was hanged but spirited into hiding in Ethiopia. But prison warder Kirugumi swore to me by the slopes of Mount Kenya that Njenga was actually hanged.

Lawyer Waruhiu, too, told me that he independently confirmed his client was hanged. But the rumours live to this day.

The last time I visited Muchatha village, a villager I sat with late into the night told me Njenga was taken to Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie but ordered out in the reign of military dictator Mengistu Haile Marriam. When the Kenya government declined to have him land in Nairobi, the captain of the Ethiopian airliner that carried him threw him out in the skies on the way back to Ethiopia. I wanted to tell the story teller that his story wasn’t credible but thought better than to doubt a good fiction well told — and after I had spent so much buying the yarn-spinner drinks.


Postscript: Life is full of coincidences. Tom Mboya was able to make great impact, not less because of his close friendship to the brothers, US President John F. Kennedy and his brother Attorney-General Robert Kennedy. Like Mboya, both Kennedys were felled by assassins’ bullets in broad daylight.

But one striking coincidence came to me one day when seated at the office of a friend whose daughter is married to Mboya’s son.

Seated at the reception, I noticed a face I recognised to be one of a driver who I worked with at the Kenya Times newspaper.

His name is Isaac Njenga. He told me that on leaving employment at the newspaper, he was employed as a driver to Mboya’s widow, Pamela. I would learn that in her sunset days, Isaac Njenga wasn’t only a driver but a most trusted aide to Pamela. What a coincidence that one Isaac Njenga deprived her of a husband that fateful July 5, but another Isaac Njenga became a close aide.